Sunday, August 7, 2011

Stubborn Is as Stubborn Does

This post was first published June 13, 2010.

When I first moved out to the country, I dreamed of goats. Long-eared does with big brown eyes and  gentle, mellow personalities. Soft and cuddlesome. They would be Nubians, probably, like the two sweet babies pictured to the right.

I would line the mothers up, hand them treats and milk them, then use the milk to make delicious cheese. Perhaps I'd shear them and turn their wool into warm blankets.

Goats would come in time, I imagined. After I put in goat-proof fencing and built a shed and made all the right preparations.

The cosmos, however, had other plans.

My dad called one morning three years ago to tell me there were "a couple of kids" playing on his front deck. He got a kick out of making me think they were human before finally letting me know they were, in fact, capricornian. I grabbed a couple of leashes and headed over. I found a mother and her baby buck, neither of them friendly and both a bit wild. The mother scrambled over the three-foot railing and leaped to the ground another three feet below. Her baby tried to follow but I was able to catch him before he cleared the railing. I carried him to my backyard, which I'd had fenced and cross-fenced when I moved in, and let his sad bleating lure his mother (that's her in the picture directly below) into the yard after him.

I had already taken in a couple of stray dogs and cats, but I'd never even considered that a couple of stray pygmy goats might wander up. I made phone calls to neighbors, checked surrounding streets for signs, distributed flyers, and scoured the newspapers for 'lost' ads. After two weeks went by without anyone claiming them, I decided it was time to build a shelter. Two weeks after that, I had the fast-growing buck neutered. In goatherd-speak he was now a 'wether'. A few days later the owner -- who had apparently missed the flyer about them in her mailbox but heard about them from a neighbor -- called.

The goats had been a wedding anniversary gift to her from her husband. The couple had recently moved out here from the city and they had not adequately prepared for the curiosity, intelligence and Houdini-like prowess of goats. Within the first hour of their arrival, the goats had escaped. During the month following, the couple had redone their fencing and bought more goats. As the owner had not had time to develop a significant attachment to these two goats, she agreed I should just go ahead and keep them.

The baby buck was about 3 months old when he showed up and far from the soft, tiny kidling I'd dreamed of holding in my lap. Neither he nor his mother were interested in being touched much less fussed over, so considerable time and energy was spent simply taming them. Plus, they still had their horns (goats are generally "debudded" by their owners by the time they're a week old) and they were quite adept at using them: on me, on each other, on the wooden structures around them.

Since the buck, aptly named Rowdy by my dad (in the picture to the right), was still nursing, the mother, Lucy, was milkable. Assuming one could actually keep her still enough to milk. Or that Rowdy didn't drink it all first since pygmy goats produce pygmy quantities. Usually the half cup or so I'd get would have so much dirt and goat hair in it after wrestling for it, I'd pour it out for the dogs and cats to drink. I filtered it a couple of times and used it in my coffee, but when Rowdy was ready to be weaned, I let Lucy dry up, especially as I'd already decided a herd of pygmy goats was not part of my overall plan.

One dirty little secret the milk industry -- whether cow or goat -- hides simply by not discussing it is why an animal produces milk in the first place and what happens afterward. Since the hormones needed for milk production and let-down kick in during pregnancy, that means an animal must birth offspring in order to produce milk. This is where the majority of people obliviously stop thinking about what the logical consequences to that are. They prefer to picture happy cows or does grazing in lush fields with tiny babies gamboling about them.

In commercial operations, however, if the baby is a female, the owner will calculate herd size and determine if it's worth the cost to raise it. If so, the baby will be immediately separated from its mother and will be raised on milk replacement since the owner will be selling its mother's milk and won't want to waste any of it on the baby. As for the boys, since it only takes one male to service a herd of females, unless a male is exceptional, they all -- along with any unwanted girls -- become "excess." In the case of cows, some of these babies will wind up as veal calves: force-fed exorbitant amounts of high-calorie food, raised in the dark to keep the meat white, not allowed to move to avoid muscling and spoiling the tender meat, and slaughtered when only a few weeks old. Otherwise, the cost of raising a baby on milk replacement usually exceeds any potential cost on the other end and the babies are simply disposed of.

(This was the cycle I wasn't yet planning for since I wouldn't be "disposing" of any "excess". I have to be sure I have the room, the time, and the resources before I commit to raising goats, cows, horses or whatever else might stray up.)

Eventually Lucy and Rowdy tamed down to the point I could pet them, brush them, walk them around on a lead, etc. But neither of them are "easy" when it comes to trimming their hooves or keeping them still enough to treat injuries. They don't like being told what to do or forced to do something they don't want to. They fight. Every. Single. Time. It's exhausting. Even the simplest things become a chore with them. And no matter how patient I am trying to correct their bad habits -- butting the door to the food shed if I'm not getting their food out quickly enough, butting me if the treats I hand them aren't the ones they want right then -- they refuse to back down. The stubborn stereotype fits them perfectly. They're smart; they KNOW what's being asked of them. But, unlike dogs, the best reward for them is keeping the upper hoof. If it's a choice between a yummy treat and showing dominance, they'll abandon the treat every time.

In fact, the mother goat has to believe her name is really Lucy No or Lucy Don't. I can't remember when I last spoke her name, Lucy, by itself in a kind and loving way.

Don't get me wrong. Although these two goats showed up at a time I wasn't prepared for them and even though they aren't the breed or the personality I dreamed about, I've come to love them fiercely. As exasperating as that independent nature and stubborn streak is, it calls to me. They have spirit. And I'll take spirit over a broken soul any day.

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